IBD and the Flu: A Complication-Prone Combination

Teddy bear suffering from the flu.

The leaves are turning beautiful colors and there’s a nip in the air. Autumn has arrived! Along with the anticipation of fall holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving, this season brings a higher incidence of upper respiratory infections, such as common colds and influenza.

For patients with inflammatory bowel disease, influenza can be a bigger problem than in the general population. According to a study published in the journal Inflammatory Bowel Diseases, the risk of influenza and influenza-related complications is higher among IBD patients.

In fact, the study showed that the risk of contracting influenza was 30% higher for inflammatory bowel disease patients when compared to those without IBD. They also found that the rates of hospitalization within 30 days of the original diagnosis of flu were almost three times higher among IBD patients.

Many of the medications used to treat Crohn’s and UC suppress the immune system. It is well-known that these medications can leave patients susceptible to infections. The researchers also studied whether any of these medications put patients at a higher risk of catching the flu. They found that only steroids (such as prednisone) were associated with an increased risk of contracting influenza.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” or so says Benjamin Franklin, so here are some tips to prevent flu over the upcoming season:

  1. Get vaccinated.

    This is especially important for people with chronic diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease. Talk to your doctor about which vaccine is best for you. If you’re taking maintenance medications that suppress your immune system, you cannot get a live vaccination. Check with the person giving you the vaccine to make sure you know which type you’re getting.
    The amount of coverage provided by the flu vaccine varies from year to year. Some years, the flu vaccine is very effective; some years, it’s less effective. You should still plan to get the vaccine every year. But you should also follow some of the other precautions below to further decrease your chance of catching the flu.

  2. Wash your hands.

    Did you just touch that doorknob or elevator button? Better wash them again. Make a habit of using hand sanitizer every time you see it available. However, remember that hand sanitizer is not a substitute for good old-fashioned soap and water.

  3. Stay away from others who are sick.

    No one will watch out for your health better than you. Avoid someone who appears ill.

  4. Stay home if you’re sick.

    Don’t try to tough it out. If you’re sick, stay home and rest. The last thing you want is to get worse.

  5. Don’t forget self-care, especially around the holiday season.

    As the winter holidays approach, remember that this time of year can be a stressful and emotional time for many people. Make self-care your number one priority (remember what we said above: no one will watch out for your health better than you!). That means getting plenty of rest, maintaining your exercise routine, and keeping up with your healthy diet in spite of all those yummy treats!

  6. If you think you have the flu, see your doctor ASAP.

    The medications available to shorten your course of the flu must be started within the first 48 hours of the first symptoms. There are also prescription medications which your family members can take to help prevent them from also getting the flu. Then it’s rest, rest, rest, drink plenty of fluids, repeat. Give your body the best tools available to fight off the illness.

Let’s all stay flu-free this season!